“When you’re rich and famous,” radio host Cynthia Gooding asked Bob Dylan, “are you gonna wear the hat too?”
“Oh, I’m never gonna become rich and famous”.
That’s just one of the lies that Dylan told Gooding on the morning of 11 March 1962. Appearing live in the studios of WBAI-FM, a listener-supported radio station in New York, Dylan performed eleven songs in an hour long interview, just before his self-titled album was released. The recordings, collected as Folksinger’s Choice (which, it seems, was the name of Gooding’s radio program) are excellent quality, as you can hear in these clips found on YouTube. Dylan performed only one song from his forthcoming album (Fixin’ To Die), a number of traditional pieces, and two originals: Hard Times in New York and The Death of Emmett Till.
Emmett Till, which has only been commercially released on Bootleg Series 9: The Witmark Demos, is introduced as a song that he wrote about a week before. The story of a fourteen year old black boy who was tortured and killed in Mississippi in 1955, the song is one of Dylan’s earliest protest songs. A bit rougher and less polished than some of the others he would shortly write (The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll) it nonetheless demonstrates Dylan’s earliest forays into writing topical songs. I mentioned yesterday that Dylan credited Tom Paxton and Len Chandler with showing him a route towards song-writing that used established melodies, and he notes to Gooding after playing this that Len Chandler will recognize this melody (it is based on his song “Bus Driver”), once again demonstrating his technique and his indebtedness.
Dylan’s turn towards topical songs like Emmett Till was the key to his development as an artist, and I want to talk about that in a couple of days when I’ve read more of the early issues of Broadside. It’s worth noting, though, Gooding’s enthusiastic response to the song (“It’s one of the greatest contemporary ballads I’ve ever heard. It’s tremendous!”). Gooding is effusive about everything Dylan does during the hour, but she saves a special enthusiasm for the two songs that he wrote.
Where the interview can be very hard to take is the section after Dylan plays “Standing on the Highway”. He tells Gooding that “I learned that from the carnival” and then goes on to insist that, though he was only twenty-one now, he had worked for the carnival “off and on for about six years”. While she doesn’t seem to completely buy this lie, she is also too polite to call him on it. Two songs later she is sort of forced to ask “At the carnival, did you learn songs?” with a straight face.
The self-mythologizing Dylan who obscured his own background by lying about where he’d been and what he’d done is a central part of the early Dylan, but it is also one of the most annoying things about him. Listening to him talk about freak shows and working the ferris wheel is almost painful at times, particularly after listening to an early version of something like “Emmett Till”.
All through 1962, Dylan seems to have been torn between a simple desire to speak the truth (which can be seen in his Broadside work) and the equally powerful desire to tell lies. With Gooding he does both, and we get to see both the devil and the angel of his nature.